Talking Rugby League, with League Express editor Martyn Sadler
Last Friday Super League confirmed the full fixture schedule for the 2021 season.
The first two rounds, as previously notified, will be played behind closed doors at Emerald Headingley Stadium and the Totally Wicked Stadium in St Helens respectively.
The first game of the season will see new Salford coach Richard Marshall face his old team, St Helens, in his first game of a double header, before Leigh Centurions return to the top-flight to face local rivals Wigan Warriors.
Because of Covid-19 restrictions there will be no fans in stadiums for the first six weeks of the competition, but the fans will be able to return in limited numbers for matches from Round 7 onwards, after 19 May.
With the re-scheduled Dacia Magic Weekend being played at the business end of the season (Round 23, 4-5 September) it could all be to play for in Newcastle, with the final push for play-off spots, League Leaders Shield or last ditch pushes to avoid relegation.
The Betfred Super League Grand Final will return to its spiritual home, Old Trafford, on Saturday 9 October.
There will be 25 rounds of fixtures in total, with three rounds of midweek fixtures: Rounds 12 and 13 doubling up over the first weekend of July; Rounds 16 and 17 over the last weekend of July; and Rounds 21 and 22, which will double up over the August Bank Holiday weekend.
Each team will play home and away fixtures against every other club in the competition, and they will also play a third fixture against three other clubs, including the Magic Weekend.
I was strongly opposed to playing as many as 25 fixtures in a World Cup year, when we should be prioritising World Cup success.
But Super League has gone down that route and the three additional fixtures for each club will all be played at neutral venues during the first two rounds of the competition and during the Magic Weekend, which I think is quite a good compromise.
The only teams that won’t be playing at neutral venues will be Leeds in Round 1, when they play Wakefield Trinity on 27 March, and St Helens in Round 2, when they play Hull Kingston Rovers at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
I’m not sure how the additional three fixtures were selected for each club, but it seems to me that Leigh Centurions have had the rough end of the stick.
The Centurions’ opening two games are against Wigan and Warrington, and they are the only team in the competition that has ‘loop’ fixtures against two teams in the top four.
The Centurions’ Magic Weekend game is against Hull Kingston Rovers, who finished eleventh in Super League last season, so that at least seems more reasonable.
But it’s reminiscent of the tough fixture list that the Toronto Wolfpack had at the start of last season.
Perhaps Super League isn’t too keen on teams that get promoted.
Super League hasn’t even given itself any time off over the proposed international window, which will take place on the last weekend of June.
Shaun Wane is certainly facing an uphill battle if he is going to win the World Cup for England, although fortunately he won’t allow himself to be distracted by a fixture list that is clearly not designed for his benefit.
The real test of this season will come in July and August, when the fixtures come thick and fast, when all the clubs will need the maximum number of players available to them to cope with the likely incident of injuries in their squads.
If I were a young player – perhaps one of those young rookies we featured in last week’s issue of League Express – I would be focused on building myself up to play at the height of summer.
That’s when those young players will be able to make a name for themselves.
One other point that is perhaps worth mentioning about the Super League fixture list.
The first round of fixtures will take place on the same weekend that the clocks go forward and we move into British Summer Time.
The only time the season has previously started this late in the year was in the very first season of Super League, in 1996, although by then during that year the clubs had already played some Challenge Cup matches by the time the season kicked off.
And what a relief it is not to be starting the season on the last weekend of January, which we have done in recent seasons.
For some reason, in recent years Super League has thought it sensible to begin the season at the coldest time of the year and in direct competition with the rugby union Six Nations competition.
By the end of March it will be warmer, lighter and the Six Nations for this season will have played its last round of fixtures over the previous weekend.
So that should give Super League a much better chance of generating the sort of publicity that the new season surely deserves.
I would like to think that Super League would follow this roadmap in future years.
But I won’t hold my breath.
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